When Marseille defeated AC Milan in 1993 – regardless of how tainted that victory may, or may not, have been – it ended decades of enforced patience for French football. It had taken almost 40 years for a French club to win the European Cup. Had fortunes taken a slightly different course in 1956, however, the history of football’s premier club competition could have been so very different.
Instead of Real Madrid becoming the dominant force on the continental, their place in history may well have been taken by the Rouge et Blanc of Stade de Reims. A club finishing in a mid-table position in Ligue 1 at the end of the 2018/19 season, newly returned to the top tier of French domestic football after a period of relative inconsequence, drifting around the lower leagues, could have been the swaggering aristocrats of the nascent European Cup, rather than one of the sans-culottes lamenting over what might have been.
Under the easily forgettable nom de guerre of Société Sportive du Parc Pommery, they were founded in 1910 by Marie Charles Jean Melchior, Marquis de Polignac and the head of the Champagne Pommery. The club’s appellation contrôlée was hardly destined to acquire vintage acclaim, however. Some 20 years later, the name was changed to Stade de Reims.
At this time, the club remained an amateur organisation, and although football in France took on an official professional guise the following year, Stade de Reims kept themselves apart from the new format for a further few years. After winning the Championnat de France – the championship for amateur clubs – in 1935, however, they bowed to the inevitable and abandoned their amateur ethos, launching into the professional arena.
At the time, the club was managed by Billy Aitken, a Scotsman who had taken over from Englishman David Harrison in 1934. Success in his first season with the club built on the reputation of the forward-thinking Aitken. Following a fairly itinerant playing career in Britain, the Scot had struck out across Europe, often adopting a player-manager role for a number of continental clubs, including Juventus, who he guided to third place in the league. As the accepted home of the game, having a British manager was almost seen as a necessity for any aspiring club on the continent – but it was a passing phase. When Aitken left in 1936, he would be its second and final British manager.
The war years largely brought a hiatus to football in the country, but in the first campaign following the cessation of hostilities, Reims reached the top tier of the league structure. It was time for the club to launch into a period of success.
Robert Jonquet, considered by many to be one of the finest centre-halves of the era, was promoted from the youth team after being signed from Voltaire de Paris three years earlier. He would remain at the club until 1960 and was a key member of their most successful teams. He would also play 58 times for France.
Roger Marche was also brought into the defence a few years later. Signing from Olympique de Charleville, alongside Jonquet, Marche would provide the stiffest of spines to the Reims backline. He too would feature extensively for France, eventually breaking the record for the number of international caps for Les Bleus. His total of 63, set in 1959, would stand until surpassed by Marius Trésor two dozen years later.
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Under manager Henri Roessler, the club won their first French title in 1948/49, a single point clear of runners-up Lille. The northern outfit, from near the Belgian border, would perhaps consider themselves somewhat unfortunate not to take the title: their goal difference of 62 comfortably surpassed that of Roessler’s team, and scoring more than a century of goals in a 34-game programme is remarkable. It was, however, the ability of Les Rouge et Blanc to win games in less flamboyant fashion that took them over the line, a characteristic that may have deserted them in the hour of their greatest need, however.
In defence, Marche and Jonquet had now also been joined by Armand Penverne, another graduate of the youth system. The team was set for more success and the following term, as well as securing the pre-season Trophée des Champions – the French equivalent of the Charity Shield – overcoming Coupe de France winners Racing Club, they defeated the same side to take the cup from them on 14 May 1950.
Two goals in the last ten minutes settled the final. The first was scored on 81 minutes by French starlet Francis Méano, mere days short of his 19th birthday. Tragically, Méano would never have the opportunity to fulfil his potential. He died in a car accident just over two years later, at the tender age of just 22.
The second goal two minutes later was added by André Petitfils. The midfielder, at the other end of the age range from the tyro Méano, was now over 30 and the following season would be his last with the club before he joined Metz. It’s poignant to reflect that neither of the two goalscorers on the day that Reims won their first Coupe de France would be with the club two years later, although for entirely contrasting reasons.
At the end of the 1949/50 campaign, Roessler left the club to join Marseille and was replaced by the man who would build on the foundations created, guiding the club to new heights and oh-so-close to legendary status. A local from the city, Albert Batteux, had been a Les Rouge et Blanc player since 1937, contributing to both the league success in 1949 and the cup triumph the following term.
In 13 more seasons at the helm, he would add a further five league titles, another Coupe de France and earn Reims a place at the top table of European clubs. Also doubling as manager of the national team between 1955 and 1962, under his care Les Bleus would take third place at the 1958 World Cup and fourth at Euro 1960. After leaving Reims, he would guide Saint-Étienne to three league titles and two Coupe de France successes, making him the most accomplished manager in the history of French domestic football.
The previous two seasons had shown that Reims had a team capable of great things. They now also had a manager who would ensure that potential was delivered on. With the club now seen as a growing power in France, they began to attract even more quality than ever. The driving midfielder, Raymond Kopa, joined from Angers in 1951 and Raoul Giraudo left the youth team at Aix to become part of the growing throng. Batteux’s strategy would take a little time to become ingrained in his players, but a couple of seasons after the appointment, things were well set.
A second league title was secured at the end of the 1952/53 season. After finishing fifth and then fourth in the previous two terms, without really threatening to league winners, they triumphed in some style. Topping the table by a clear four points from runners-up Sochaux, Batteux’s team won more games than anyone else in the league, scored more goals, and conceded the fewest.
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Additionally, as an amuse-bouche for what would follow a couple of years later, Reims entered the Latin Cup as champions of France. Clubs from the country had finished as runners-up over the previous three years, with Bordeaux, Lille and Nice losing in the final. Batteux’s team would redeem the reputation of French football when they secured the trophy in the summer of 1953, defeating AC Milan in the final.
In French cuisine, the amuse-bouche is often followed by the hors d’oeuvre, before the main courses begin. The Latin Cup wasn’t held the following year but, at the end of the 1954/55 season, with Les Rouge et Blanc again France’s top team, they would reach the final of the tournament once more. As an unwelcome herald of the shape of things to come, their conquerors were Real Madrid.
The new season began with early promise for the club, when they again triumphed in the Trophée des Champions thanks to a thumping 7-2 victory over Lille, played at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille. It set an optimistic tone for the challenges ahead, especially with the new European Cup tournament making its bow.
This nascent episode of what has grown into football’s premier cash-stuffed club jamboree was much less extravagant in its first year of life. Indeed, the idea of each competing club being the champions of their domestic league was still to be set into stone. Instead, the invitations were distributed via the largesse of the French football magazine L’Equipe, with the criterion being that each competing club should be of the required prestige and be regarded as representative of the finer elements of football.
With typical insular arrogance, the FA leaned on English champions Chelsea to opt out of the competition, with the governing body insisting that nothing should be allowed to detract from the importance of the domestic league and cup programmes. In their stead, Polish club Gwardia Warszawa were invited. Chelsea weren’t alone in rejecting an invitation; the fabled Hungarian side Honvéd, with a galaxy of stars from the Magical Magyars, also demurred, as did BK Copenhagen and Holland Sport.
Hibernian had been invited as Scottish representatives, not merely because of their success on the field, but as a visionary club who had sought involvement in European, and indeed global, tours and competitions, and having had floodlights in place in Easter Road, all of the boxes were ticked for the aficionados of the football magazine. The choice was important for Reims, as the Edinburgh club would face the Les Rouge et Blanc in the final four of the competition.
There was another twist to the tournament. Instead of a draw to decide who would face each other in the first round, the organisers fixed the ties. Offering advantage to favoured clubs due to financial or reasons of prestige is nothing new in European football.
The first-ever European Cup tie took place on 4 September 1955 at Lisbon’s Estádio Nacional, when Sporting played out a 3-3 draw with Partizan of Yugoslavia. If the clubs combined to give the competition a flying start, individually, neither would prosper greatly. A five-goal second leg mauling in Belgrade ended the aspirations of the Portuguese and, in the quarter-finals, Partizan would fall to Real Madrid, a three-goal home victory falling just short of overturning a 4-0 defeat in the Spanish capital.
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Reims were selected to play against AGF Aarhus, who had filled the spot vacated by BK Copenhagen. Batteux’s team would begin their European campaign on 21 September, in front of some 18,000 fans at the Idrætsparken, Copenhagen. Just seven minutes into the contest, forward Léon Glovacki would first reveal a penchant for scoring early goals in the cup run when he netted to give the visitors the lead. A second strike by the same player with 18 minutes left meant a comfortable two-goal cushion to take back to France.
Although he failed to find the net himself, Kopa was already displaying the flair and attacking threat that would make him one of the outstanding players of world football, as his intelligent play probed the opposition defences. For the succeeding three tournaments, Kopa would be part of the team that lifted the trophy. Unlike in the 1956 tournament, however, his shirt would not be Les Rouge et Blanc of Stade de Reims, but Los Blancos of Real Madrid. All of that was part of a then-unknown future that would hold out a glimpse of the most glittering of prizes for the French club, before snatching it cruelly away.
Back in Reims, the club’s Stade Auguste Delaune was hardly a seething cauldron for the second leg, with fewer than 6,000 fans attending. Another Glovacki opening goal plus one from René Bliard had, to all intents and purposes, put the tie beyond doubt before a couple of late Danish strikes offered the visitors the most insignificant of fig leaves to cover their emphatic defeat.
The win took Reims into the last eight and a quarter-final encounter with Hungarian club Vörös Lobogó, who had stepped up in place of Honvéd. Although perhaps lesser-known than the team that could boast the likes of Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and Zoltán Czibor, Vörös Lobogó, who would now represent the land of the Magyars, were hardly second rate.
They had talents like Mihály Lantos, the international defender with an unerring talent for penalties, forward Péter Palotás and the incomparable Nándor Hidegkuti. Tragically, for such a gifted generation of talented footballers, this tournament would be the only time that a truly outstanding club from Hungary would take part in the European Cup, the Soviet invasion of the country in October 1956 causing a number of the nation’s greatest footballing assets to scatter to other corners of Europe and beyond to escape the crackdown. Puskás would end up being a part of the Real Madrid side that destroyed Eintracht Frankfurt at Glasgow in the 1960 European Cup final.
Eleven days before Christmas 1955, Reims took to the field at the Parc des Princes in the country’s capital for their next ‘home’ European Cup tie. The crowd, comprising more than six times the number that had attended the second leg in Reims against Aarhus in October, clearly justified the decision to switch venues, and with a vociferous crowd behind them, Batteux’s charges swept forward enthusiastically.
With Glovacki finding the net for the opening goal again, this time inside the first 15 minutes, the French had the early ascendancy. Midfielder Michel Leblond added a second a dozen minutes ahead of the break, and it seemed a useful lead was being established. The Hungarians were in no mood to fold, however, and within a minute, Szolnok had halved the advantage, only to see René Bliard restore it once again just before half-time.
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A two-goal advantage would be a decent return against such a talented outfit, but when Leblond scored again just before the hour mark to put Reims 4-1 ahead, the tie was sliding away from the Hungarians. Heading towards the last ten minutes, though, Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst, who a decade later would award the most controversial goal in World Cup history, offered a lifeline with a penalty. Lantos converted and, at 4-2, the door wasn’t firmly shut. All would depend on the early exchanges in Budapest two weeks later.
With the Christmas festivities now behind them, the teams met again on 28 December at the MTK Stadion, Budapest in a game replete with goals and changing fortunes. It was now almost de rigueur that Glovacki would score the opening goal, and that truism was underscored once more as he put the French club into the lead on six minutes. It was an opening of the floodgates.
Five minutes later, Lantos notched another spot-kick to square things up on the night, but a brace from Bliard on 20 and 44 minutes had the French in control at 3-1 in this game and 4-2 from the first leg. The Hungarians were surely now done. As if to underscore things, Jean Templin added a fourth goal for the visitors, a dozen minutes after the restart.
A Palotás strike a minute later seemed the most insignificant of consolations, but another Lantos penalty entering the final 20 offered renewed, if surely forlorn, hope. Palotás would add a fourth goal for the home team, but with only eight minutes remaining after the strike, it was too little too late, and Reims had survived a stormy encounter to navigate their way into the last four of the competition.
The four clubs still standing alongside Reims as the tournament entered the semi-final stage were Real Madrid, AC Milan and, perhaps the least expected of the quartet, Hibernian of Scotland. The Spanish champions had Alfredo Di Stéfano to lead their line, the extravagant talent and goalscoring prowess of Paco Gento, and the captaincy of Miguel Muñoz, who would see European Cup success with Real as a player and manager.
The Italians were full of star names. A few years earlier, they had laid out a world record transfer fee to bring attacking midfielder Alberto Schiaffino to Serie A from Uruguayan club Peñarol, placing him alongside other foreign luminaries like Nils Liedholm and Gunnar Nordahl to bolster the likes of native son Cesare Maldini.
Both clubs had serious aspirations of winning the inaugural tournament, so when the pairings saw Stade de Reims pitted against Hibernian, more than a few fans of the French club would’ve considered it a favourable draw. Any hubris, though, may well have been presumptuous – and the feeling was very much mutual in Scotland.
Hibs may not have had players of the stature of those donned in the stripes of Milan, the pure white shirts of Madrid, or perhaps even the likes of Kopa, Glowacki or Giraudo of Les Rouge et Blanc; they did, however, have their own stars, particularly the forward line, dubbed as the Famous Five. Forget the denizens of Enid Blyton’s fertile imagination. Heaps of tomatoes and lashings of ginger beer weren’t on the menu for Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond. Instead, they traded in heaps of goals and lashings of exciting, attacking football.
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As so often seems to be the case, for Reims, their expeditions in Europe were hardly reflected by their fortunes in the league. Following on from their title victory the previous season, they would finish in an inauspicious ninth, and wouldn’t ascend to the title again until 1958, when a revamped team secured the domestic cup double, opening the door to a second tilt at the European Cup.
Four days into April, Hibs visited the Parc des Princes to play Reims and decide who would feature in the first-ever European Cup final. Any semblance of overconfidence from the home side seeped away over the first 45 minutes as the solid Scottish defence not only denied Glovacki his traditional opening goal, but shut out the entire French forward line as well. At the break, the game remained goalless.
Twenty minutes into the second period, French nerves were becoming frayed as Tommy Younger’s robust refusal to concede, ably assisted by his backline, continually frustrated Gallic attempts to force a breakthrough as Kopa insistently drove his team forward. The resistance was eventually broken as the game entered its final quarter, when a Leblond header pierced the stubborn Hibs defence.
Even then, a single-goal defeat with the home leg in Edinburgh to come offered manager Hugh Shaw’s side a more than decent prospect of progress. There was just a single minute remaining when the fatal blow was struck, though. A ball ran out towards Bliard, and the forward fired past Younger. The game ended 2-0 and, after an almighty struggle, the French had their noses in front.
The Scots had progressed to this stage by comfortably beating West German club Rot-Weiss Essen 5-1 on aggregate, later triumphing 4-1 on across two legs against Djurgården of Sweden. There were certainly goals in their team, and if they could score first back at Easter Road, with a ferocious host of Scottish fans howling them on, the tie was still up for grabs. Should Reims deny any early thrusts, however, a counter-attack as the Scots became increasingly frustrated could provide a coup de grace.
On a chilly Edinburgh evening in mid-April 1956, the second leg was played out. True to expectations, the Scots raged forward in energetic waves. This time, however, it was the French backline that refused to buckle, denying each and every threat to go into the break mirroring the position in the first leg.
The French side had scored two goals after the break so, surely, the Scots could do the same. The danger of the counter-attack was ever-present, with the pacey Kopa looking like a patient sniper awaiting the arrival of his target. There was a feeling of solemn inevitability about the fortunes of the tie when the only goal of the encounter arrived. Another Scottish attack foundered and, as the French gained possession, they launched a rare sortie forward, resulting in a goal from Glovacki.
Reims would face Real Madrid at the Parc des Princes on 13 June 1956. If the opening game of the tournament had been a feast of goals, the final would take things a step or two further as the two clubs battled it out to be the first club champions of Europe.
When the game got underway, it seemed that the Spanish would get blown away by the speed and ferocity of the Reims attack. Inside ten minutes of the referee’s whistle, Les Rouge et Blanc were two goals up. The additional surprise was that neither strike had come from Glovacki. Six minutes in, with the teams still settling, Leblond fired low past Juan Alonso in the Spanish goal to give Batteux’s team an early advantage.
It seemed almost certain that the trophy would be staying France less than four minutes later when a looped through-ball from Bliard found wide man Jean Templin running to collect beyond the Real Madrid defence. He headed the ball on and raced after it to collect. Seeing the danger, Alonso plunged towards him to block. The ball bounced free, however, and Templin had the fairly simple task of placing it past a covering defender and into the net.
Reims seemed in total control. Two goals to the good, and with Kopa orchestrating attacks from the centre, more seemed inevitable. Despite that, Real Madrid had a latent power that had yet to ignite. Four minutes after falling two behind, they exploded into action, as their Blond Arrow found its target. A wonderfully incisive pass split the Reims backline and Di Stéfano steered the ball home, with René-Jean Jacquet helpless.
If the French had thought the game won already, they now faced a radical reassessment. On the half-hour, things were all square as Héctor Rial fired home from a tight angle, and at the break, the scores remained level. The destiny of the title was no nearer to being decided than when the game had begun 45 minutes earlier. The only thing that appeared certain was that there would be more goals in the second period.
Batteux may have faced a difficult team talk at the break. His players had raced into a comfortable lead and then saw it snatched away as the Spanish champions played themselves back into contention. He now needed to inspire them to go out and do it all again. With Kopa pulling the strings, there was every chance that they would score again, but there also needed to be a firm resolution that they could hold out mentally.
The hour mark had just ticked past when the first component of the required formula came to pass. A cross from the left was nodded into the goal by Michel Hidalgo, the man who would ascend to the managership of Les Bleus 20 years later. Reims were back in front again. Could they hold on to the advantage this time?
Five minutes later, the answer was revealed to be a firm negative when defender Marquitos found himself in an unaccustomed forward position. The ball bobbled ungainly as he tried to sort his feet out to fire off a shot, but somehow it bounced forward, perhaps taking a deflection on the way, finding its way inelegantly into the net. The French lead had proven to be fragile once more.
Belief was draining away as resolution rose in their opponents. Having led twice, once by two goals, and been pulled back each time, a fatalistic depression seemed to settle on Reims. Real’s players grew in stature, assured that the winning goal would come. With just over ten minutes to play, it duly arrived, as Rial calmly side-footed home from short range. For the first time in the game, the Spanish were ahead – a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
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Real Madrid launched a domination of European club football that would last unvanquished for five years. Reims merely had the option of licking their wounds and lamenting what might have been. They had the players, they had the ability, but perhaps they lacked that tenacity, the inner belief that the game was always there for the taking, regardless of the score.
Sadly for the club, it was not only advantages in football matches that Reims failed to hang onto when faced with challenges from Real Madrid. Kopa had been an astute addition to the club and, despite not being a prolific goalscorer, was the fulcrum of many of Les Rouge et Blanc’s attacks. They would, frustratingly, lose him to Los Blancos.
Somewhat strangely, the transfer was completed just a few days before the clubs met in the inaugural European Cup final. The timing and subsequent loss to the Spaniards caused some in France to question the commitment offered by Kopa to the Reims cause. It was understandable from a perceived sense of betrayal, but grossly unfair on Kopa, who was one of the outstanding players in the final.
For Kopa, it was a dream move. Having come so close to securing the European Cup, he would now go on to win the next three finals, becoming the first Frenchman to do so when Real Madrid won the 1956/57 tournament, beating Fiorentina in the final. Joined later at the Bernabéu by Puskás, he would also collect two LaLiga titles and enjoy a Latin Cup success, before returning to Reims in 1959 to play out the remainder of his career.
The loss of Kopa was keenly felt, but Batteux sought to rebuild by adding a series of France internationals to the squad. In came Just Fontaine from Nice. The forward would score 145 goals for the club in just 152 games in a scintillating period. Goalkeeper Dominique Colonna followed a similar path. Jean Vincent arrived from Lille and Roger Piantoni deserted Nancy to link up. Two years later, Batteux’s new charges would win the domestic double and, again, launch into European competition.
A lot of the early doubts about the validity of the competition had now been washed away. Real Madrid appeared unconquerable, but many would try to unseat them, including Reims. Even the English had by now deemed it appropriate to tun up.
The French pursuit of revenge began with a tie against Ards of Northern Ireland. A comfortable 10-3 aggregate victory, with Fontaine netting six goals across both legs, set them on their way. Into the next round, they faced a similar sort of challenge from Finland’s HPS. Seven goals without reply finished the Finns.
In the quarter-finals, Standard Liège were an entirely different proposition. A 2-0 defeat in Belgium set up a difficult return leg, and with 20 minutes remaining in the Stade Auguste Delaune, the lead was intact. In the minutes remaining, it took a brace from Fontaine and a strike from Piantoni to get the job done. Perhaps this new Rouge et Blanc team had found some of that missing resolution and refusal to bend the knee.
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In the last four, it was the perhaps immature challenge of Swiss club Young Boys that barred their way to another final. A one-goal victory for the Swiss in Bern’s Wankdorf Stadium always looked undercooked, and that impression was confirmed by a 3-0 victory for the French at the Parc des Princes.
On 3 June 1959, at the Neckarstadion in Stuttgart, Reims had their chance for revenge, but it wasn’t to be. Batteux’s team were perhaps an upgrade on the players who fell short three years earlier, but so were Real Madrid, not least due to the addition of Kopa who, along with Di Stéfano and Gento, formed a formidable forward line. The Spanish club dominated the game and eased to victory with goals from Mateos and Di Stéfano.
Kopa would return to Reims for the new season, but it’s questionable as to whether – even as they secured another French title in 1960 – the magic was draining away into the ether. Their subsequent European Cup attempt certainly hinted that way. A comfortable passage past Luxembourg’s Jeunesse Esch was brought to a shuddering halt by English champions Burnley. Armand Penverne subsequently left the club after a dozen years, Jonquet moved to Strasbourg, while Giraudo and Leblond also departed. A last flaring saw another title secured in 1962, after which Fontaine retired.
A final tilt at Europe’s premier competition was now as effective as that of Don Quixote’s assault on windmills. Success against Austria Wien was followed in the next round by defeat to Feyenoord. To date, it was the final Reims venture into the European Cup. As the fame and fortune of Real Madrid continued to rise over the next 50 years, those of Stade de Reims followed an entirely different trajectory.
For the 1962/63 season, a runners-up place to Monaco was secured. It was Batteux’s last term with the club before departing for further glory with Marseille. He was followed into the manger’s chair by Camille Cottin, but the new man floundered. A disastrous season saw them finish in 17th position and endure relegation. Not only did it jolt the club, it also led to the departure of the few remaining players who had been part of Batteux’s vintage. The only one who remained was Kopa, who stayed with the club until 1967.
Problems followed problems. Relegation became a recurring theme as they tumbled down the French pyramid. The club that had once stood on the cusp of being the best in Europe seemed lost. There has been a renaissance of sorts, however. After gaining promotion back to Ligue 1, Les Rouge et Blanc finished in a solid mid-table position at the end of the 2018/19 season. It’s hardly enough to draw comparisons with Real Madrid, but it is the latest of a series of moves in the right direction.
Football is replete with stories and laments of sliding doors moments. What would have happened if that goal had gone in rather than hit the bar? What about if that penalty hadn’t been missed? Ifs and buts and maybes are the very foodstuffs that sustain debate about the game. So let’s add one more.
Back in 1956, had Reims been able to hang on to either of the two leads they held over Real Madrid in that inaugural European Cup final, how different might the subsequent fates of those two clubs have been? Certainly, France wouldn’t have needed to wait for Marseille’s victory to acclaim a European champion of their own. Perhaps it may have been Stade de Reims with 13 European Cups to their name, while Los Blancos flitted around the lower reaches of the Spanish league. Perhaps. Perhaps not.
By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze